Imagining Peace: Ethiopia-Eritrea Rapprochement

The editorial committee of the Horn of Africa Bulletin (HAB) first broached the idea of a thematic issue on the possible process and peace dividend emerging from a rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia in early 2016. However, contextual factors and the sensitivities around the proposed theme discouraged any further follow-up. That the HAB issue on Ethio-Eritrea rapprochement can finally see the light of day is a testimony to the profound nature of the changes in Ethiopia unleashed since Prime Minister Abiy ascended to the helm of power, and, the rapidity of the rapprochement process between the two countries.

The shift in relations and the rapprochement is now widely accepted as having been a long time in the making, attributable in part to high-level contacts mediated by the Gulf governments and other supportive entities. The initial statement from the executive committee of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) issued on June 5, 2018, indicating the Ethiopian government’s willingness to unconditionally accept the terms of the Algiers Agreements (2000) and the rulings of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), led to a flurry of reciprocal visits by the heads of government and high-level officials.i On July 9, 2018, during Prime Minister Abiy’s trip to Asmara, the two governments signed a ‘joint declaration of peace and friendship’ which formally ended the state of war between the two countries and committed the Ethiopian side to implementing the decisions of the EEBC regarding the border demarcation. On September 5, 2018, the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement in Asmara, committing the three governments to work on regional peace and joint economic cooperation. Following the signing of the agreement, foreign ministers of the three countries travelled to Djibouti and held meetings with President Ismail Guelleh, in a successful bid to pave the way for eventual rapprochement between Djibouti and Eritrea.ii During Ethiopian new year celebrations on 11 September, 2018, the border was reopened along Zalambessa and Bura, and local communities and troops of the two countries celebrated the holiday and were able to cross the border at will. On 18 September, 2018, President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy signed the Jeddah peace agreement which contains seven articles.iii

The formal agreements and negotiations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been accompanied by the lifting of the proscriptions against the factions of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Ginbot 7 (G7) etc. (all of them previously based in Eritrea) and their return to Ethiopia. In a reciprocal gesture, the Ethiopian government has also formally requested Eritrean opposition organizations based in Ethiopia to cease their activities against the Eritrean government.iv Travel and trade ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been restored and experienced a revival.

The rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been greeted with euphoria and broad support from wide sectors of the urban public in both countries. Furthermore, the international and regional reaction to the process has been largely positive and supportive. Both Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias have been widely acclaimed for taking the initiative to break the deadlock over the conflict. Observers have interpreted the rapprochement as completely overturning the prevailing pattern of relations in the region and hailed the process as a positive step in enhancing the wider peace and security agenda in the Horn of Africa. There is also widely held consensus that the peace dividend specifically in the form of the benefits from enhanced economic links and cooperation and reduction of tensions would help both countries and the larger region. The current rapprochement is anticipated to have a positive impact on efforts to manage and resolve several intra-state conflicts in the Horn such as the civil wars in South Sudan and Somalia. Peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is also widely expected to reduce the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean by rendering redundant policies that have supposedly led to the outflow of migrants in search of better opportunities.

In a similar vein, the articles in this issue of the HAB reiterate many of the hopes and expectations associated with peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The article by Jason provides a panoramic overview of the potential impact of Ethiopia-Eritrean rapprochement on regional peace and security dynamics. Jason’s overview of the larger regional context, while optimistic, is also nuanced in its recognition of potential unpredictable effects over the long term, for instance in terms of the stand-off between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Several articles in this issue seek to explore the dynamics that explain the Eritrean government’s acquiescence to the signals emanating from Ethiopia and the Eritrean perspective on the rapprochement. The article by Tania explains the rapprochement and the Eritrean government’s willingness to engage with the process, as primarily emanating from the geo-political maneuverings and shifts in the Horn and the Gulf region. Tania’s article argues that hopes for political reforms in Eritrea as a by-product of the rapprochement may be overblown and also underlines the parallels between the current rapprochement and the earlier honeymoon period between the two governments which was the prelude to the 1998-2000 war. The article by Olivia also focuses on Eritrea and is optimistic about the positive by-products of the rapprochement process in the form of expanded economic ties between the two countries, the lifting of travel restrictions which she describes as ‘low hanging fruit’, which over the long term could lead to changes in Eritrea. Olivia’s article takes an interesting detour in emphasizing aspects that have been ignored in the conventional narrative on the rapprochement, for instance the risks to Eritrea emanating from the multiple ethno-nationalisms in Ethiopia and their possible domino effect. Martin’s article is extremely insightful as befitting his long-term experience with the two countries. His article emphasizes the positive dimensions of the rapprochement, while sounding a cautionary note regarding aspects such as the modalities of the border demarcation and the necessity to institutionalize bilateral relations. The jointly-authored article by Hirt and Abdulkader analyses the challenges and problems of the rapprochement from the vantage point of the Eritrean opposition and diaspora civic groups. The article by Hirt and Abdulkader implicitly subscribes to the ‘democratic peace paradigm’ in resolving inter-state territorial disputes which assumes that lasting peace is dependent upon democratization.v Their articles raise several critical issues in relation to policy and political reforms which they see as integral and having a bearing on the long-term sustainability of the peace process.

Two contributions in this issue diverge from the emphasis and lens utilized by the earlier authors. The article by van Reisen focuses on the migrant crisis and weighs the potential impact of the rapprochement on regional and international efforts to combat human trafficking and smuggling. In the article, she suggests that the rapprochement has created conducive conditions for a renewed effort to tackle the crisis by allowing for different actors such as the Gulf states, governments in the Horn and regional sub-state administrations to coordinate their efforts and resources. The article by Belete analyzes the rapprochement and its potential challenges from an Ethiopian vantage point. After an overview of the geopolitical context that provides the backdrop for the rapprochement, the article discusses the potential challenges and possible solutions. Belete points out that the parallels between the current rapprochement and earlier honeymoon phase of the relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea (a point alluded to by several authors in this issue), provide many useful lessons which should not be ignored.

As stated earlier, the rapprochement has been met with widespread relief and expressions of support from different stakeholders. While understandable, it is also striking how much of the analysis concerning the coverage is undergirded by a certain un-spoken consensus. A substantial component of the media coverage and analysis has exclusively focused on the positive outcomes and peace dividend accruing from Ethiopia-Eritrea peace, while ignoring or sidelining critical gaps and criticism regarding how the process has unfolded.vi Coverage and analysis on the rapprochement focuses on potential policy changes in Eritrea which could lead to political liberalization and mitigate the flow of migrants from Eritrea, while curiously sidelining the ramifications of the rapprochement for Ethiopia. A final point is the tendency to understand the conflict as a ‘border dispute’ at the expense of the trade, currency exchange and investment issues between the two countries, which were a critical contributing factor to the 1998-2000 war. The articles by Tania and Belete provide a necessary corrective to this view of the 1998-2000 war.

The support of Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is understood to have been essential to the success of the rapprochement. However, the process has also been marked by the sidelining of key continental and regional actors such as the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). This is an aspect that has been almost completely ignored in the media and observer commentary on the process but its implications have yet to be analysed and understood. Belete’s article rightly raises the absence of the AU and the IGAD in the rapprochement as a gap.

The rapprochement has yet to be evaluated through a peacebuilding lens. A defining feature of the rapprochement has been its state-centric character, the absence of public consultations and people to people peace initiatives. Several articles in this issue of the HAB emphasize to varying extents the necessity to involve borderland communities in the peace process and above all in the border demarcation process. The consolidation of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia will be determined by the degree of popular legitimacy and transparency of the rapprochement process, which suggests the urgency of non-state actors such as religious institutions, civil society and borderland communities to be involved in the process. This point is also spelt out in in the 2012 Draft AU Strategy for Enhancing Border Management in Africa, which makes local communities a key pillar in managing border issues in Africa, and states “…by giving community involvement the status of a pillar, this Strategy recognizes the importance of local communities as key stakeholders in the management of borders in Africa. … decisions and subsequent actions taken with regard to border security will be doomed to fail if they are not backed by these key stakeholders at the borders”.vii

Demessie Fantaye, Editor

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i A high-level delegation led by Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh travelled to Addis on 26 June, 2018. On July 8, 2018, an Ethiopian delegation led by Prime Minister Abiy landed in Asmara and was warmly welcomed by the public. On July 14, President Isaias of Eritrea travelled to Ethiopia amidst a warm welcome from the public and formally re-opened the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa.

ii Shaban, Abdu Rahman Alfa. ’’Eritrea-Djibouti relations: UN hails successful regional diplomacy.’’ Africanews.com, 2018. http://www.africanews.com/2018/09/09/eritrea-djibouti-relations-un-hails-successful-regional-diplomacy//.

iii Addis Standard, ‘’Full Text of the Ethio-Eritrea Agreement in Jeddah’’, September 18, 2018, https://addisstandard.com/full-text-of-the-ethio-eritrea-agreement-signed-in-jeddah/. Article 4 of the agreement enjoins both parties to implement the decisions of the EEBC, while article 7 of the agreement calls for the establishment a high-level committee and sub-committees to assure the implementation of the agreement.

iv Plaut, Martin. ‘’Ethiopia Orders ‘Eritrean Opposition’ Parties Cease Anti-Eritrean Activities.’’ Tesfanews, July 29, 2018. https://www.tesfanews.net/ethiopia-order-eritrea-opposition-cease-anti-eritrea-activities/.

v For a cursory overview of the debate, see; Owsiak, Andrew P. 2012. ‘Signing Up for Peace: International Boundary Agreements, Democracy, and Militarized Interstate Conflict, in International Studies Quarterly. Pgs: 59-63; Gibler, Douglas M & Alex Braithwaite. 2013. ‘Dangerous Neighbours, Regional Territorial Conflict and the Democratic Peace’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 43, Issue. 4; Gibler, Douglas M. 2007. ‘Bordering on Peace: Democracy, Territorial Issues, and Conflict’, in International Studies Quarterly. Vol:51.

vi For an overview of the type and content of the mainstream coverage of the rapprochement process between the two countries, see; Nyabola, Nanjala. ‘’Why the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace process is good for African politics.’’ www.aljazeera.com, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/eritrea-ethiopia-peace-good-news-africa-180711081433471.html; Addis Fortune. ‘’Breaking the Ethiopia-Eritrea Impasse.’’ June 16, 2018. https://addisfortune.net/columns/breaking-the-ethiopia-eritrea-impasse/; In the Ethiopian context, criticism and questions regarding the rapprochement are often equated with the opposition to Prime Minister Abiy and the political reform agenda he is pursuing, which has in a way stifled debate and discussions on the issue. Criticisms and discussions on the rapprochement are confined to articles on certain websites such as the www.aigaforum.com and http://www.tigraionline.com/.

vii African Union Border Programme. Draft African Union Strategy for Enhancing Border Management in Africa. May 2012. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiKiJONwOTdAhULxoUKHT2VA64QFjAAegQICBAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.peaceau.org%2Fuploads%2FAU-DSD-WORKSHOP-MARCH-2013%2FBorder-Programme-docs%2FAU-BM-Strategy-Revised%2520Draft.pdf&usg=AOvVaw3__8um8cM4gafn2XKKeSsz.